A hundred years ago, our summer may have included an exciting trip to Laurel Park on the Manchester-East Hartford border.
We may have ridden on the carousel, picnicked at the pavilion, and danced the Turkey Trot to the music of a live band. If
we had 25 cents, we may have rented a boat to row on Laurel Lake, or bought refreshments at the concession stand.
It was in 1895, the “Gay Nineties,” that the owners of the Hartford, Manchester, and Rockville Tramway Company created Laurel Park. Similar “trolley parks” were created at the ends of trolley lines throughout the country, including one in Glastonbury, to attract paying customers on weekends. When you paid for the trolley, you got into the park free. If you came by horse and buggy, you paid ten cents to hitch up your team and enter.
Maro Chapman (1839-1907), president of the tramway company, served in the Civil War, and upon his return, engaged in the envelope business with Plimpton Manufacturing Company of Hartford, the U.S. Envelope Works, and the Hartford Manilla Company. He married Lucy Woodbridge, lived at Manchester Green, and commuted by buggy to Hartford, passing the Laurel Lake area. More about Maro Chapman on our web site: here.
The 100-acre body of water was originally a millpond, created by damming the Hockanum River at Powder Mill on Burnside in East Hartford. The mills manufactured gunpowder in the 18th century, and became paper mills later, operating until the late 1950s. Remnants of the mills remain, in a small shopping center located across from today’s Wickham Park.
In 1885, Maro Chapman and his partners, Richard Cheney and Horace Wickham (yes, the very same owner of the land along Burnside Avenue, and a principal in the envelope business) established their tramway company, serving travelers between Hartford, Manchester, and Rockville. Chapman eventually built a mansion for himself and his family at 75 Forest Street, Manchester, with expansive grounds and gardens (and yes, this historic house and grounds are currently threatened with condo development).
Laurel Park attracted 2500 patrons on its opening day. Merrymakers descended from open-air cars at the park’s rustic entrance, and followed a narrow path across the Hockanum River, thence to the picnic pavilion and bandstand. A nearby path led to a wooden observation tower, where they could climb three flights of stairs to see the view of surrounding towns and the Connecticut River valley.
Laurel Park was immensely popular with young and old, families, and church groups, who held their Sunday school picnics at the pleasure ground. Several Manchester residents have recorded their memories of the Park as a place of delight. Frank Rieder, age 107, recalled the stirring Sousa marches played at the Bandstand. He enjoyed the company of the schoolgirl who eventually became his wife. Frank sometimes took the trolley, and sometimes walked to the Park from the West Side of Manchester.
The Tramway Company added features and activities over the years, and opened the park weeknights, with dancing on Thursday nights as well as Saturdays. There was a lotus pond, zoo, “electric launch,” and an arcade with slot machines. Thousands of people came on nights when there were fireworks – and the fireworks could be seen for miles, due to the park’s low elevation (70 feet above sea level, the lowest spot in Manchester).
The zoo had monkeys, foxes, raccoons, parrots, an eagle, and other birds. Herb Bengtson, retired Town Historian, explained that in the winter, when the Park was closed, the animals stayed under the trolley car barns located behind today’s firehouse at the Center.
From a 1904 advertisement in the Manchester business directory (see below), we find that “Ladies and children need no escort.” With “all the modern attractions,” the Park was conducted “in a manner to please the most refined taste. No Liquor. No Rowdyism. The class of people who are associated with the above ‘cause and effect’ do not go there, because they know they are not wanted and will not be tolerated. Respectable, orderly people make up the crowds that frequent Laurel Park. Only five miles from Hartford, three from Manchester, and ten from Rockville. Fare from Hartford or Rockville, 10 cents; Manchester, 5 cents. No more lovely Trolley Ride than this in the State.”
The age of the automobile changed Americans’ recreation patterns. Families could take a Sunday drive, go to visit relatives, or “see the U.S.A. in their Chevrolet.” They didn’t need the trolleys, whose routes and schedules may not have met their individual needs.
According to local historian Gladys S. Adams (1910-2001), “Laurel Park fell into disuse….The last mention of it was ‘In October 1923 a dance was held in honor of Manchester’s Centennial, after which the park was closed for the winter.’”
Laurel Park, along with most other trolley parks, faded into memory.
We can still take a summer walk in the natural areas of today’s Laurel Marsh. A 3.5-mile, wildlife-rich trail surrounds the marsh. The trail is maintained by the volunteers of the Hockanum River Linear Park Committee (HRLPC). Hikers can park at the lot on the south side of Middle Turnpike West, just east of Exit 60 off I-84. Directions and trail information are available at the HRLPC's web site: www.hockanumriverwa.org/LPCM_LaurelMarsh.htm.